Why Is It That Some People Remember Their Dreams and Others Don’t?
In 1964, Paul McCartney woke up with a melody in his head that came to him in a dream. He sat down at his piano and played the tune to avoid forgetting it. He then played the song, tentatively titled “Scrambled Eggs,” to his friends and bandmates to ask if they’d heard it before.
Surely, such a great melody couldn’t come to him in a dream. But no one he asked had heard it before, so McCartney finished up the lyrics and gave it a new title, “Yesterday.”
The song was recorded the next year and would go on to become one of the biggest hits ever written.
Why is it that some people can wake up in the morning and remember a song from their dreams, while others can’t remember their dreams at all?
Science tells us that creative types, like McCartney, are more likely to remember their dreams than analytical thinkers.
For starters, everyone dreams. It’s a way for our brains to categorize information and regulate our emotions. The difference is that some people remember them, and others do not.
Raphael Vallat, a neuroscientist specializing in sleep and dream research at the University of California, Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, says memories of our dreams quickly fade after we wake.
“Waking up is like going from air to water while holding sand in your hand,” Vallat told Discover Magazine. “Holding the sand is like holding the memory of your dream. And you’re trying to dive into the water without losing any sand in your hand. The idea is that it’s very hard to keep this fragile memory of your dream.”
“Dreamers tend to be more anxious, but they’re also more
open to experiences and more creative people,” Vallat said. “The analogy I make
is that dreamers are the artists, whereas nondreamers are the engineers.”
There are two major reasons why creative people are more
likely to remember their dreams than analytic thinkers.
The first is their brains are wired differently. When we
dream, our brains switch over to the brain’s default mode network, allowing our
minds to wander.
This part of the brain is the part that is active when we
are daydreaming or ruminating while awake.
Dreamers’ default mode network tends to have more activity both during the waking hours and sleep, making it easier for them to recall what happens while asleep.
“Being lost in thoughts is very similar to actual dreaming
in terms of neuro-connectivity and brain activation,” Vallat said.
The second reason why creative people tend to recall their
dreams more readily is brain structure. Our brains are made with an equal
amount of gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is where we process
information and white matter is what keeps parts of the brain connected.
Dreamers have more white matter in a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with decision making, retrieval of long-term memory, and perception of time.
Other things that affect dream recall include sex and how
deeply one sleeps.
Light sleepers are more likely to recall their dreams because waking up and falling back to sleep in the middle of the night makes it easy for them to be encoded in memory.
Women are more likely than men to remember their dreams
because their brains tend to have more activity in the default mode network. Socialization
plays a factor as well.
“If you look at dream recall in children, you don’t find any differences between boys and girls. But then… girls report typically recalling more dreams around the age of 14 or 15,” Vallat said. “The theory is that women are typically more encouraged to speak about their emotions as teenagers, and this extrapolates to dreaming. Teenage boys are less encouraged to speak about their dreams or feelings.”
Knowing what someone dreams about may prove to be a window into their personality. However, knowing if someone can recall their dreams or not also provides a glimpse into how their minds work.